Carolina waterfront suffers extensive damage 17 dead

millions lack electricity in Fran's wake

Hurricane Fran

September 07, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

WILMINGTON, N.C. WIRE SERVICE REPORTS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WILMINGTON, N.C. -- Rod Bierstedt, his wife and 13-year-old son fled their house on Wrightsville Beach Thursday and took shelter from Hurricane Fran at a motel in Wilmington.

During the night, Fran's winds dropped part of the motel's roof on Bierstedt's two cars. And TV pictures from the beach yesterday morning convinced him he'd lost his house, too.

"But we're alive," he said.

Not everyone fared as well. Of the 17 reported storm-related deaths, 11 were in North Carolina, two in South Carolina and two each in Virginia and West Virginia.

While most of the deaths were traffic-related, a firefighter in Durham, N.C., died when a tree fell on a firetruck. An 18-year-old woman was killed when a tree fell on her mobile home in Onslow County, N.C., and a young boy died in a similar incident in Alamance County, N.C.

Fran's eye passed directly over the Wilmington and Wrightsville beach area, raking it with winds as high as 110 mph and scouring waterfront communities with a 12- to 14-foot storm surge.

In Virginia yesterday, rescue workers struggled in boats, helicopters and military vehicles to reach those endangered by flash floods.

Hundreds of houses were evacuated in hollows and along streams and creeks in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley and the Southside region. Fran sent several people into the trees along Naked Creek near Elkton, Va., where they awaited rescue by helicopter.

In West Virginia yesterday, at least two people died and 12 counties were declared disaster areas as rain from the remains of Fran sent rivers over their banks in the eastern part of the state, emergency officials said.

Some residents fled their homes but officials could not provide exact numbers. Scattered power outages were reported across the state.

A 19-year-old man drowned in a creek in Pendleton County, state police said. An emergency dispatcher said a second person died in Grant County when his vehicle was swept away by floodwaters.

West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton declared 12 counties disaster areas because of the high waters. Most of the counties are in the state's eastern panhandle.

The hurricane knocked out electricity to an estimated 4.5 million people in the Carolinas and Virginias, including most in the eastern half of North Carolina and central Virginia.

President Clinton declared major disasters in North Carolina and Virginia, making victims eligible for federal aid. He sent James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to oversee recovery efforts.

Fran was merely a depression by midday yesterday, but it continued to dump heavy rain over a wide area. By evening, its top winds had declined to about 29 mph, and it was on a path to dump rain through much of the Northeast over the next couple of days.

In North Carolina, the Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure beach areas suffered major damage, with many beachfront structures washed away, collapsed or splintered by wind and waves.

Uncounted boats were sunk, smashed or washed ashore.

Property owners, reporters and sightseers were turned back from the beaches until public safety officials could assess the dangers and begin repairs to water, power, sewer and telephone services.

None of the North Carolina deaths occurred in those beach areas or in Wilmington, according to Bill Clontz, a public information officer for New Hanover County. The beaches had been under a mandatory evacuation order since 7 a.m. Thursday.

"The fact that [Hurricane] Bertha came through a few weeks ago assisted us in getting compliance," he said. "The few people who elected to stay then said, 'I'll never do that again.' "

Two people died in adjoining communities, Clontz said. One perished in an automobile accident; the other was killed when a tree fell on his car.

Cliff Robinson, 39, rode out the storm with his two young $H daughters in his sky-blue mobile home in Myrtle Grove, just a few miles north of Carolina Beach.

"I stayed here during the last hurricane [Bertha] and she held out, so I figured she'd hold for another one," he said.

But it was a rough night.

"The walls started moving in," he said. 'You could see them moving in three or four inches, and blow back out. It just kept getting worse and worse. It sounded like it was fixin' to blow the top off the house."

"It was the worst hurricane I've seen in a whole long time," he said.

Even so, several times during the storm, and once when the hurricane's eye turned the night, briefly, to an eerie calm, Robinson ventured outside. He checked on friends, tied down a boat and rescued four baby squirrels that were blown from their nest.

His daughters, Nova, 14, and Jeanette, 11, went along. "They go everywhere I go," he said.

"If God wants you, it don't make no difference where you're at. He's going to take you."

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